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Newton’s law of sincerity

'If you look at the centre from the margin, your viewpoint will always be ironical, always cynical.' Why the creators of Newton, India's official Oscar entry, sent their hero into the jungles of Chhattisgarh

Mayank Tewari at his home in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowhdury/Mint
Mayank Tewari at his home in Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowhdury/Mint

Advice from a new acquaintance is like reading a horoscope. You can interpret it any way you like.

But I have frequently found advice from new acquaintances to be constructive, as it tends to focus on a particular problem and its resolution. It is also coloured with fewer biases.

Within the first 15 minutes of Newton—the film that is now India’s official entry to the Oscars in the Best Foreign Film category—its lead Newton Kumar (played by Rajkummar Rao) is the recipient of a staggering lesson from someone who barely knows him. A young officer who has volunteered for election duty, he is asked by a senior election officer (played by Sanjay Mishra), if he is aware of what plagues him.

“Meri imandaari (My sincerity)?"

“Nahi. Imandaari ka ghamand (No, the arrogance about your sincerity)."

Mishra goes on to tell him that sincerely serving the nation is simply his duty. He cautions him against the danger of wearing it as a millstone around his neck.

When I meet Mayank Tewari, who wrote the film’s dialogue and co-wrote the screenplay, he tells me this was self-referential. While writing the film, he and director Amir Masurkar (the two have collaborated in the past when Tewari played a struggling writer in Masurkar’s 2014 indie movie, Sulemani Keeda) were getting carried away with the realization that they had a brilliant movie on their hands. He wrote that in as a note to self. He says he knew it would strike a chord with audiences. As it did for me.

Tewari, a former journalist with The Pioneer, Asian Age, DNA and Hindustan Times, with a brief career as a stand-up comic, is an atypical Bollywood film writer. Along with two cats, his study is littered with books on tantra, books by T.S. Elliot, E.B White, the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre, and in equal parts books by Hindi writers such as Rahul Sankrityayan and Nikhil Sachan. There is wild graffiti on a yellow wall, which Tewari refers to as a “map of his mind", punctuated by the serenity of a Raja Ravi Verma print. His all-time favourite movie is Kamal Swaroop’s 1988 gem, Om Dar-B-Dar. The movies he has been previously associated with are Ragini MMS, a sex comedy and a zombie thriller—the last two are waiting in the can.

Tewari was influenced by David Foster Wallace’s idea of New Sincerity, a trend across music, literature, cinema and philosophy popularized by Wallace in the 1990s that defined works that broke away from postmodernist irony and cynicism.

“We are living in a time of self-conscious irony," says Tewari. “We are aware of what’s wrong with our society… but if you read the righteous online news platforms, it’s as if just knowing this elevates (their writers and editors) from that reality. The revolutionary spirit is exhausted right there…the constant talking about what they are doing and what other people are not doing.

“It’s ‘landed gentry’ journalism. See, if you look at the centre from the margin, your viewpoint will always be ironical, always cynical," he adds. Tewari and Masurkar believed the only way forward was to break the cycle of cynicism. Masurkar had just read Rahul Pandita’s Hello, Bastar and so they sent Newton right into the jungles of Chhattisgarh.

As Newton, a man determined to do things by the rule book, struggles with chaos and corruption while presiding over a polling booth in the jungle, there are long sequences when he marinates in silent frustration. For a movie that sparkles with dialogue, I found the silences most effective.

“We live in an age of psychoanalysis. What you don’t say is as important as what you say... sometimes even more," shares Tewari, who adds that having been analysed for 11 years, he privileges subtext (there is one line in the entire movie that lets on that Newton is Dalit).

Newton is devastating in its portrayal of contemporary Indian society and politics. But like a good novel that can straddle different brands of intensity, it is also laugh-out funny.

There is something about Newton’s aching eagerness to do good that puts him at the receiving end of advice throughout the film. A paramilitary commander tasked with guarding him reminds him, menacingly, of that old BODMAS rule from middle school: “Addition ke pehle division hota hain." You can interpret it any way you like.

Towards the end of the film, Newton , though no less sincere, wears his sincerity lightly. He has just received a certificate of punctuality. But instead of hanging on the wall behind his desk, it rests in a drawer.

That is good advice from Newton. What the movie says is this: hide your certificates of goodness. You’re the only one who needs to see them.

The writer tweets at @aninditaghose

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